COVID-19 has dominated global headlines since it was first discovered just three months ago. Its disruption to human life has been immense, and in the United States, will probably grow worse in the coming weeks.
Businesses and organizations everywhere are struggling to adapt, and these sudden and often painful changes could hasten some of the long-term consumer trends discussed in previous columns. Already teens were rewriting the rules on how consumers interact with brands, and each other. Now, COVID-19’s impact on American culture could turn long-term evolutions into overnight revolutions.
Take the concept of “flight shaming.” Climate activists such as Greta Thunberg have created new awareness of air travel’s effect on the environment, and the large carbon footprint of those who fly commercially, much less privately.
Now, in the COVID-19 era, United Airlines has reported that net domestic bookings are down 70%. Many companies have called for a moratorium on nonessential travel. More meetings are being conducted over Skype or Google Hangouts rather than in person. And conferences are being canceled left and right. Companies are always looking to save money, so even when COVID-19 subsides, flying coast-to-coast for an in-person meeting might become a thing of the past.
Or take the phenomenon of “hanging out separately, together.” For the last few years, teens have been using apps such as Houseparty to hold group video chats, and bring together friends to share a conversation or common experience while being physically apart. These apps have reduced the significance of cars and physical meeting places such as movie theaters and shopping malls.
Now, if millions of people are under quarantine, these apps will become more important than ever. And they might lead to more virtual birthday parties and anniversary celebrations to avoid traveling (see “flight shaming” above), and spreading germs to susceptible friends and relatives.
And finally, consider the shift from out-of-home to streaming entertainment. Movie theaters have already been hurting, with attendance in steady decline, particularly among teens and young adults. Who needs to pay for expensive tickets, parking and concessions when you can “Netflix and chill”?
Add to that the fear of contracting COVID-19, and suddenly, it’s a lot more appealing to stay home and stream programming on one of about a dozen premium OTT services; play video games like "Fortnite"; watch someone’s Twitch feed; play with the apps on your phone; create your own content; or comment on someone else’s.
What are the implications for marketers attempting to navigate this challenging new landscape?
*Go home with consumers. Netflix, Skype and Zoom are all naturals at this, but now every brand has to learn how to live with consumers in their homes. If your brand is purchased or consumed out of the home, figure out a way of getting it to consumers there, even if it means delivering it, or switching to digital distribution.
*Offer virtual experiences. If you’re offering a service requiring travel or a large physical gathering, figure out a way of offering a version of it online. Meetings, concerts, sporting events, lectures and even trips to tourist destinations can be produced and streamed online, with the ability for friends to participate together via a group chat.
*Lead the way on stakeholder safety and welfare. The best companies are showing their concern by allowing employees to work from home when feasible; giving them paid sick leave; adopting best practices for cleanliness and social distancing; and clearly communicating these policies.
COVID-19 will eventually pass, but its changes to consumer lifestyles might last a lot longer. Smart brands will change with consumers to better serve them both during and after the pandemic.